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Astronomy backstage pass: Chicago

This behind-the-scenes tour of cool astro stuff in the Windy City includes Adler Planetarium’s priceless artifacts, incredible meteorites in the Field Museum, neutrino detectors at Fermilab, and the rich history of Yerkes Observatory.
Adler Planetarium sits on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Some 500,000 people visit it each year.
Courtesy of Adler Planetarium
Chicago is a fantastic place on this planet. I live a whisper beyond 100 miles (160 kilometers) from this great city, which sprang up on the American Midwestern plain in the 1830s as a portage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Now hosting 2.7 million people, it is the third-largest city in the United States, and Chicagoland is home to some 10 million people.

Last winter, Astronomy Senior Editor Michael E. Bakich and I traveled southward to Chicago and the surrounding region to explore some famous sites associated with the world of astronomy. Now anyone who lives in the Midwest realizes it’s not a great place for astronomical observing. Living here as an observer has taxed my patience for 35 years. But that’s not to say that astronomical treasures don’t exist in the Windy City.

My comrade Mr. Bakich and I are going to share with you some of the stunning sights we saw at four great institutions: Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, Fermilab, and Yerkes Observatory.


Three state-of-the-art theaters educate and entertain school groups and the general public throughout the year.

Courtesy of Adler Planetarium

Adler Planetarium: The indoor sky

Adler Planetarium is the oldest such institution in the United States, founded by Chicago businessman Max Adler in 1930. Built in the same year Pluto was discovered, Adler is celebrated for its inclusion in the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933.

Each year, Adler draws more than half a million visitors who flock to see exhilarating sky shows and enormous numbers of displays and artifacts relating to the history of astronomy, the exploration of the solar system, and the universe at large. Our hosts at Adler were the wonderful Jennifer Howell, Michelle Nichols, Pedro Raposo, and Mike Smail.

We experienced live demonstrations of the sky theaters, including the Grainger Sky Theater, which is the main domed theater; the Definiti Theater, which uses an all-digital system; and the Samuel C. Johnson Family Star Theater, which can be used for 3-D presentations, talks, or seminars. We also explored the famous Atwood Sphere, Chicago’s first planetarium, dating from 1913. 

The major artifacts on display at Adler generated some of the greatest excitement for us. We walked through a grand spaceflight gallery centered on Apollo, called Mission Moon, which was made possible by the generous support of Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell. Among the many artifacts was the Gemini 12 capsule used by Lovell and Buzz Aldrin on their historic 1966 flight. 

And telescopes — we saw telescopes. Not only the planetarium’s working Doane Observatory, which hosts a 20-inch scope, but historic instruments as well. Included in the displays are the famous Dearborn 18.5-inch Alvan Clark refractor, a 1788 telescope made by William Herschel, and many others.

An exhibition at Adler, called Our Solar System, contains displays of all the planets. Demonstrations and hands-on activities allow visitors to interact with science.
Courtesy of Adler Planetarium
The choicest moments at Adler came when we visited the Collections Department, where we got a true behind-the-scenes tour. Adler’s collection of antique instruments and books relating to astronomy is one of the greatest in the world, we knew that. Still, what we saw stunned us.

The treasures included a celestial globe made by Gerardus Mercator, a 1,000-year-old astrolabe from present-day Iran, a German pocket globe from the late 17th century, and a refracting telescope from Italy, made around 1630. Pedro told us the mind-blower on the last one: It is believed to be the oldest existing telescope outside of Europe. 

The amazing treats continued when he showed us a collection of rare astronomical books. We saw a beautifully colored edition of Johannes Bayer’s 17th-century star atlas, Uranometria; Johannes Hevelius’ 1679 Machinae coelestis; and Peter Apian’s 1540 work, Astronomicum Caesareum. Then came the two jaw-droppers. The first was a copy of Johannes Kepler’s famous Tabulae Rudolphinae, in which he laid out the planetary orbits accurately; it was inscribed by Kepler to a fellow mathematician, Benjamin Ursinus! The second amazing treasure was a copy of Johann Bode’s 1801 work Uranographia. This copy was owned and inscribed by the Herschel family — William, Caroline, and John!

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is one of the largest such facilities in the world. It opened at its present location on May 2, 1921. 
Courtesy of the Field Museum

The Field Museum: Cool meteorite science

We were, of course, blown away by Adler’s incredible historical artifacts. When Michael and I finished, we crossed a short distance to another great institution, the Field Museum.

There we were met by Angelica Lasala and Brianna Peoples, and joined by Philipp Heck, the curator of the museum’s meteorites. In the hidden hallways of the Field Museum, up in the research labs and libraries of the second floor, we were treated to a long discussion with Philipp about the meteorite collection — one of the finest around — and the ongoing research happening there. Ever since its commencement in 1893, the collection has grown every year and still receives annual donations from well-placed scientists and collectors. 

Philipp showed us a large specimen of the Murchison Meteorite, famous for containing amino acids, some of the compounds necessary for life. He showed us a jar filled with submillimetric diamonds — stardust — extracted from primitive meteorites. He also showed us a beautiful slice of Allende, a wonderful primitive meteorite that fell to Earth in 1969 with large chondrules and calcium-aluminum inclusions. These blobs of material that cooled and solidified in meteorites are older than Earth. Philipp then showed us one of his primary tools used for analyzing meteorites, his Raman spectroscopy setup. 

We were backstage at the Field Museum specifically for meteorites. Philipp Heck gave us a great tour of some special meteorites and the equipment he uses to analyze them. In this photo, he demonstrates the museum’s Raman Spectroscopy System.
Michael E. Bakich
Philipp’s colleague Jim Holstein, curator of the meteorite “vault,” then took us into the secret depths of the collection. From numerous drawers (the collection holds more than 12,000 pieces), he picked out an impressive array of famous and rare stones from space for us to examine. There were drawers full of Allende! We saw the very first meteorite in the Field collection, a cut (and engraved!) piece of Elbogen, which fell in 1400 in what is now the Czech Republic. We saw an enormous chunk of the Santa Rosa de Viterbo meteorite found in Colombia in 1810. Jim then showed us huge lunar meteorites found in Northwest Africa. What a treat!

We then walked through one of the Field Museum’s highlights, the Grainger Hall of Gems. Minerals are the center of planetary geology — they’re the way the universe assembles atoms into rocky bodies like Earth. The gallery showed an incredible array of minerals, and we can imagine that many other planets would also have similar mineral specimens. We saw great examples of diamonds, gold, topaz, the tourmaline group, varieties of quartz, rubies, emeralds, and more.

Employees gather around readouts in 2015 on the day the MicroBooNE Experiment — a 170-ton liquid-argon time projection chamber — recorded its first particle tracks. “BooNE” is an acronym for Booster Neutrino Experiment.
Courtesy of Fermilab
Fermilab: Neutrino physics

The next day, Michael and I made our way to Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago. For many years, this U.S. National Accelerator Laboratory has been just that — a series of underground accelerators. But now the huge, sprawling facility, which is like a small city in itself, is transforming into a neutrino detector among its primary functions. The quest for cosmological answers is daily business at Fermilab. Among them: finding out exactly what constitutes dark matter. 

Our host, Andre Selles, introduced us to Marcela Carena, head of the Theoretical Physics Group. Marcela, who leads a dynamic group of researchers, generously told us about all the research activities going on at this amazing place. She gave us an overview of particle physics, of the role of Fermilab’s discovery of quarks, and of the discovery of the Higgs Boson at CERN. She described in detail the current major role of neutrino detection.

Senior Operator Beau Harrison then gave us an insider’s tour of the heart of Fermilab operations, the master control room. Our Fermilab visit was crowned by a great discussion with Dan Hooper, a well-known expert on dark matter who gave us a solid overview of the challenges that researchers face in identifying what dark matter consists of, and how his research is tackling the issue.

Yerkes Observatory, founded in 1897 by American astronomer George Ellery Hale, stands near Lake Geneva in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The University of Chicago Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics operates it.
Courtesy of Yerkes Observatory

Yerkes Observatory: The world’s largest glass

After a full morning experiencing Fermilab, we headed north, back into Wisconsin, winding our way through country highways. A 90-minute drive brought us to the town of Williams Bay on picturesque Lake Geneva, home of one of the great historic astronomy research centers in the United States: Yerkes Observatory.

There, we met with Dan Koehler, the observatory’s director of tours and special programs. He gave us an incredible behind-the-scenes tour. We started with the famous 40-inch Alvan Clark refractor, the largest refracting telescope ever built, and we discussed at length the role of Yerkes, which commenced in 1897.

Among the many historical settings at Yerkes is the office of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who began working at the University of Chicago in 1937. It is currently occupied by Jim Gee, the observatory’s director of operations.
David J. Eicher

The observatory’s founder, George Ellery Hale, went on to California to create Mount Wilson Observatory, and he became the driving force behind the Palomar 200-inch scope. So in a sense, much of the era of American astrophysics originated at Yerkes. It was certainly a thrill to stand on the floor of the big dome, right where Albert Einstein famously posed with the Yerkes staff back in 1921. We also got a great insider look at the observatory’s 24-inch reflector.

Treasures awaited us inside the observatory’s hallowed hallways, too. Dan showed us the office used by the legendary Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who spent much of his career at the University of Chicago and at Yerkes. Additionally, Wayne “Ozzie” Osborn gave us an extensive tour of Yerkes’ glass photographic plates. 

From the collection of 180,000 plates, Ozzie showed us images from the 40-inch refractor, cometary plates, tiny spectra used to measure stellar motions, an eclipse photograph that proved Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and records of photographs taken and kept by Edward Emerson Barnard and many others. Ozzie also showed us amazing artifacts. We saw the lunar sphere used by Gerard Kuiper to project craters so that astronauts could train for lunar landings. We saw a rare blink comparator from 1905, like the one used to discover Pluto and Barnard’s Star. And we saw the spectrograph used on the 40-inch scope by William W. Morgan to classify stars, as well as the filar micrometer used in the early history of Yerkes to make precise double star measurements.

Astronomer Wayne Osborn explains some of the records of observations made by American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard during the time he spent at Yerkes Observatory. 
Michael E. Bakich
Share our experience

Our trip to Chicago was unlike any we had taken before. Visiting some of the region’s brilliant astronomers and seeing hidden artifacts and some of the great instruments and displays of astronomy in the Midwest, we were spellbound.

Michael and I took turns filming this whole experience, and we captured three hours of amazing footage that provide a “backstage pass” to astronomy and space science in and around Chicago. In fact, we have created a DVD that contains the entire experience, showing all that I have described in this story and much more. (See “Your own private tour” on p. 49 for information on how to get your own copy.) 

Our hats are off to the accommodating staffs of Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, Fermilab, and Yerkes Observatory. What a window into the past, present, and future of our knowledge of the universe they have given us.



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